Wilfred Owen is rightly regarded as the leading poet of the First World War. Dulce et Decorum Est and Anthem for Doomed Youth have never been bettered as war poetry in my opinion, yet it is Miners, written in January 1918 in response to the Minnie Pit disaster, that remains my favourite poem of his. I was introduced to it as a schoolchild by my Mum when I had been given homework on the subject of coal and fell in love with the imagery, the flow of the words, and the sense of aeons of history trapped in the coal.
There was a whispering in my hearth,
A sigh of the coal,
Grown wistful of a former earth
It might recall.
I listened for a tale of leaves
And smothered ferns,
Frond-forests, and the low sly lives
Before the fauns.
My fire might show steam-phantoms simmer
From Time’s old cauldron,
Before the birds made nests in summer,
Or men had children.
But the coals were murmuring of their mine,
And moans down there
Of boys that slept wry sleep, and men
Writhing for air.
And I saw white bones in the cinder-shard,
Bones without number.
Many the muscled bodies charred,
And few remember.
I thought of all that worked dark pits
Of war, and died
Digging the rock where Death reputes
Peace lies indeed.
Comforted years will sit soft-chaired,
In rooms of amber;
The years will stretch their hands, well-cheered
By our life’s ember;
The centuries will burn rich loads
With which we groaned,
Whose warmth shall lull their dreaming lids,
While songs are crooned;
But they will not dream of us poor lads,
Left in the ground.
Research from the Defence Studies Department, King's College London
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